by H. Wallace Goddard
All ideas on parenting are not created equal, and some “good ideas” may not be so good as others.
There is a general law that you get what you pay for. It seems that cheap chips are less flavorful. The price of an inexpensive car is multiplied by the costs of repairs. A discount wig may look like road kill.
Even such ephemerals as love have a high price. Love is not the spontaneous flood of emotion portrayed in popular media; Meaningful love is the result of serving, adapting, appreciating, and forbearing–over the course of years and difficulties. Great love is built at great cost.
There are, however, notable exceptions to the general rule of economics. I can think of none more conspicuous than in the area of parenting programs. Some of the best programs in the world cost the least.
Many commercial parenting programs were developed by business people. They are supported by effective marketing and skillful persuasion but many of them are filled with high-sounding nonsense. They offer simple solutions with strong assurances. But some of the medicine is simply not effective.
There is no magic parenting wand. Timeout is no panacea. (In fact it is commonly misused.) Consequences are no better than punishment when used without wisdom and compassion. Rewards are often counterproductive, damaging the internal motivation that we hope to encourage in children. Discipline is not the most important issue in parenting.
Assessing Parenting Programs
What are the touchstones for assessing the quality of a parenting program? Two are vital. The first relates to the theme of all Jesus’ teaching: Love. He tells us that the characteristic of love will be the measure of any follower: “By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). I think Jesus would put love first on His list of parenting recommendations.
Not surprisingly, research has found that loving children is the single most important thing parents can do for their children. Not only does love have direct effects on children but it also mediates or moderates the effect of other parental behavior. Even discipline by a loving parent is more effective than discipline by a less loving parent.
The best parenting programs recommend love as the foundation, guiding principle, and informing spirit to all parenting efforts. They provide specific counsel on taking one-on-one time with children. They may even recommend specific methods for discerning children’s individual languages of love. There can be no good parenting without love.
The second vital element in parenting is a healthy attitude about agency. Agency was the core issue in the war in heaven. It is also the core issue in most family skirmishes. It is not helpful to grant children unlimited freedom nor is it productive to be over-controlling.
Devoutly religious parents at different points in history have thought it was their job to teach children to submit to them in preparation for submitting to God. Such a noble rationale has cloaked centuries of unrighteous dominion. It is plausible but wrong. God’s message to Elijah was that the Divine was not to be found in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the still, small voice (I Kings 19). We can help children submit to the holy inside of themselves as training for lifelong submission to God. That is very different from getting them to submit to mom and dad. Unquestioning submission to parents sets them up as gods. Unfortunately mortal parents are not perfect. When parents point children to their own promptings, they are pointing them to a Source that never errs.
The most exciting new research on moral development teaches parents to activate their children’s empathy. Compassion more than control, rewards, or guilt is the basis of morality, according to this line or research. If one grants that empathy is one of God’s messages to our souls, then this recommendation is exactly the same as the recommendation to point them to the holy inside themselves.
Excellent parenting programs teach parents how to point children to their inner messages. Rather than manipulation and punishment, they teach parents to use persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness (See D&C 121:41). They teach parent to be as “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) for effective parenting requires more than the right attitude; it requires wisdom and inspiration.
When the two characteristics of great parenting programs, love and respect for agency, are combined, agency is taught lovingly, compassion is taught by example, loving is taught as the highest use of agency.
Where are the best parenting resources to be found? Some of the best are very affordable. For example, the best parenting book ever written (outside of scripture), may very well be “Between Parent and Child” by Haim Ginott. Though it is currently out of print, millions were printed. It can often be bought at used bookstores for less than a dollar. (My judgment on the merits of that book may be tainted by the fact that I am currently working on a revision of the book that will be released in 2003. However, “The Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Books” places Ginott’s two parenting books on the short list of all-time great self-help books.)
John Gottman’s “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child,” though limited to styles of guidance, is a wise and balanced book–available for about $12. It can help parents set bounds with compassion. Gottman calls it emotion coaching.
Another choice: You can buy “The Frightful and Joyous Journey of Family Life” at deseretbook.com for $2.99. (Disclaimer: I wrote it.)
At the high end of the price spectrum, six excellent videotapes on raising the young child are available for $25 (http://www.iamyourchild.org/toc.html). The tapes cover issues such as safety, learning, discipline, bonding and other essentials for launching a healthy child. Like many of the best resources, they are produced by organizations with an educational mission. Not only are such works cheaper, they are usually better than those produced by for-profit organization in part because the sponsoring organizations are more likely to partner with universities or non-profit institutes that do not have a canned message to sell. They are driven by on-going research on human development and relationships. They adapt according to new discoveries.
But there are even greater surprises. Many people do not know that the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) that provides counsel on pruning trees and canning tomatoes also provides research-based information on family life. CES is not in business to make money. The organizational mandate is to get the very best research information to the citizens of the country in useful resources.
Chuck Smith at Kansas State University had been very progressive in his development of family materials on line (http://www.ksu.edu/wwparent/wondhome.htm)
One of the parenting programs I know best is the one I wrote for Auburn University. It is available at www.humsci.auburn.edu/parent/ The units can be read online or ordered for a dime each or printed online with original design and layout at www.aces.edu/department/extcomm/publications/he/hefcd.php#infants
Recently, Steve Dennis and I have created over 60 family units on subjects from marriage to development, from optimism to traditions, from timeout to nurturing. They are available free online at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service web site(www.arfamilies.org click on Family Life).
A broad array of family resources can be found at the Children, Youth, and Family Education and Research Network (http://www.cyfernet.org/) All are free, of course. Many commercial web sites also provide useful family guides.
There are times when an appropriate program is costly. Counseling and residential treatment cost more than information just as surgery costs more than aspirin. Yet, as a general rule, if you are paying lots of money for a parenting program, not only are you spending unnecessary money, you are probably getting an inferior program. The best parenting programs in the world are some of the least expensive.